Bell Family Papers Home >> About the Collection

The Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers: About the Collection

The Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers were donated to the Library of Congress by his heirs in 1975. Prior to this donation, the papers were on deposit at the National Geographic Society where they were organized and maintained in a special location called the Bell Room.

The collection presented online is a small but significant portion selected from the original Bell Papers. Altogether, the Bell Papers total over 145,000 items. This digitized selection, made up of 4,696 items (equaling about 51,500 images), consists of correspondence, journals, scientific notebooks, and other documents that best represent Alexander Graham Bell's personal life and work with the telephone, the deaf, aeronautics, marine engineering, and other areas of scientific research. Complementing the Bell Papers are digital images of photographs from the Gilbert H. Grosvenor Collection in the Library's Prints and Photographs Division.

The whole collection of Bell Family Papers is divided into several archival series, including Family Papers, General Correspondence, Subject File, Beinn Bhreagh Recorder, Laboratory Notebooks, Article File, and Speech File. The online presentation includes the following:

Several factors defined the selection of Bell Papers for digitization. The collection as a whole includes the personal papers of not only Alexander Graham Bell but also those of his father, mother, wife, father-in-law, and other family members. Because the Bell Papers are so numerous and inclusive, navigation through them can be difficult. Therefore, one of the main objectives of the selection process was to identify those materials which mainly focused on Alexander Graham Bell and his work, varied interests, and achievements. Another important goal was to choose those materials that best offered a well-rounded portrayal of Bell--not only as an inventor and scientist but also as a teacher, husband, and father. Items were also selected if they appeared historically useful or significant, such as correspondence pertaining to the development of the Bell Telephone Company or Mabel Hubbard Bell's written accounts of her experiences growing up deaf. A large amount of materials too difficult to read or understand were left out; examples include illegible letterbooks and laboratory notebooks filled with unintelligible notes.

Since the Bell collection had been maintained for many years by the National Geographic Society before it was donated to the Library, it arrived in an already-organized state and contained typed transcripts of a large portion of the handwritten letters that the Society had prepared in order to make the collection easier to use. These valuable transcriptions were naturally retained and have been reproduced here along with the original letters. Occasionally the original is missing though the transcription is still available. One should keep in mind that these transcripts are now decades old and may occasionally be difficult to read due to faded, bleeding, or blurred text.

Image Caption BelowImage Caption Below

Letter from Alexander Graham Bell to Mabel Hubbard Bell, November 19, 1876. Box 35, "Subject File: Bell, Mabel Hubbard--Family Correspondence--Bell, Alexander Graham, August-November 1876." Alexander Graham Bell Family Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Example of a folded letter with pages one and four on one side and pages three and two on the other.

The Bell Papers contain a considerable amount of correspondence, much of which reflects the writing practices of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As letter writing is becoming less popular, some awareness of common, older practices may be helpful. Since the typical handwritten letter is essentially a single sheet of paper folded in half (and usually written on all four sides), the digital scan and display of each unfolded sheet usually show an image of pages four and one (or back and front), and another of pages three and two (or the inside two pages). Example Today's readers also should be aware of such papers-saving tactics as writing-over, or text over text. In such cases, the writer would literally write over a completed page, making the added words somewhat readable by turning the page sideways and writing horizontally against what were now vertical written lines. Example Surprisingly, if the writer was careful and lengthened his or her hand while also trying to write only in the spaces between lines, such letters can be read with little difficulty.

Bell Family Papers Home >> About the Collection